Soylent Gets in a Big, Dumb PR Fight

By Bryan Menegus on at

One of Soylent’s biggest ingredient suppliers—TerraVia—has thrown down the gauntlet and cut ties with the meal replacement company, effective immediately. It’s part of possibly the strangest PR feud of the year, and probably the first major controversy in history involving algae.

Let’s catch up a bit shall we?

Back in October, reports surfaced that Soylent customers started to experience some, shall we say, gastrointestinal issues, after consuming its newly released Food Bar and/or version 1.6 of its food Powder. Why was this future food suddenly leading to “uncontrollable diarrhoea” and vomiting? After pulling the products, the company later revealed that it believed it was a result of algal flour—a fat-rich ingredient sometimes used as a replacement for butter and eggs—and promptly rejiggered the formula to exclude it from version 1.7. Soylent’s supplier of algal flour was a company called TerraVia, who are less than thrilled with being publicly associated with shitting your brains out.

TerraVia claimed in a statement today that “there has not been a rigorous investigation of the root causes of the GI problems” which the company feels could be caused by any number or combination of ingredients in Soylent and “has made the decision to suspend supply to Soylent of all its ingredients.”

If Soylent has no plans to keep using algal flour, isn’t this all a bunch of bluster and posturing?

Yes. Yes it is.

Considering the same release by TerraVia notes that last week the company “fulfilled its existing supply commitments for all its ingredients used by Soylent,” it seems like it wouldn’t have much of an effect. A representative for Soylent confirmed this by telling Gizmodo in an email, “This will have no impact on our business.” While TerraVia did also supply Soylent with algal oil—still a major ingredient in all products except the Food Bar—the Soylent representative claimed there will be no delay in shipment.

But then there’s another wrinkle (emphasis ours): “Although our ready to drink line does not contain the ingredients of concern,” a Soylent representative told Gizmodo, “we have already developed versions without algae out of an abundance of caution.” Previously the company had only admitted to algal flour as a potential source of ass discomfort, not all algae-based ingredients. Presently, its not known where its sourcing algal oil from if not TerraVia.

Compounding this is, according to Ars Technica, a potential class-action lawsuit against TerraVia from the company’s own shareholders. They feel TerraVia knew their products were causing some people to be sick and withheld that information. Now the company’s stock is in the shitter, along with many of its disgruntled customers.

While TerraVia might have been manufacturing something it knew could mess with its customers’ digestion, Soylent shares the blame for not testing its products thoroughly enough to notice these issues before products made people violently ill. Developing algae-free versions of its products isn’t “an abundance of caution” so much as the normal, expected level of food testing people should expect before stuffing a weird experimental powder into their faces. Indeed, for all TerraVia’s silliness right now, Soylent’s been engaged in a circuitous PR game of its own for months now.

Will people who hate to taste flavors still be plagued by horrifying digestive issues as a result of algae-based ingredients? Will TerraVia make it through the rest of the year? We’ll just have to wait and find out.